It is estimated that nearly 30 per cent of the food Britons buy is wasted. Increased wealth has played a part in abundance shopping; in the West, wealthy people buy more than is needed on a regular basis, effectively 'stockpiling' food against imagined shortages.
In the past, perishable goods would have been consumed immediately, but now carrots and chicken legs go in the fridge in the expectation that they will be cooked at some point during the week. Surprisingly often, however, they are not.
The drumsticks find their way to the back of the fridge, eventually pass their sell-by date, and, when excavated, are put in the bin. Each year, over 6.7 millions tonnes of food is wasted in this way in the UK.
Our supermarkets, where most British people do their regular shop, also 'stockpile': shelves hold baskets of oranges, scores deep, hundreds of cartons of milk are on perpetual display and meat and fish counters bulge with pre-wrapped, oven-ready protein.
A proportion of this food is never sold and while some supermarkets have signed up to food bank donations, large quantities of unspoilt but 'past sell-by', or slightly blemished items, are, literally, 'dumped'.
And then came the 'freegans'. 'Freeganism' is an attempt to redress food wastefulness. Opposed to the routine waste of supermarkets and households, freegans seek to draw attention to the financial and friendly benefits of sharing wasted foods. 'Meet The Freegans' (see this video) is a short introduction to 'dumpster diving' in Portland, Oregan, a form of political activism that involves visiting the back entrances of local markets, finding what edible foods have been thrown away, taking them home, and eating them. In the UK, the most famous freegan activity was led by Tristram Stuart. 'Feeding the Five Thousand' used aesthetically 'unacceptable' fruits and vegetables rejected by supermarkets to create a day-long pop-up cafe in Trafalgar Square. For an overview of the day, see 'Feeding the Five Thousand' video below.
But of course waste isn't just about food waste. In Annie Leonard's 2010 The Story of Stuff, she explores the extent to which consumer society proselytises for over-consumption, and just how much of what we produce, distribute and consume ends up in landfill (see this wonderful YouTube clip that preceded the book). Comparisons of different countries' municipal waste disposal show wide variations in the amount of waste going to landfill, which is partly explained by wealth, but not entirely: for instance, with similar average levels of affluence, the USA produces approximately double the per capita municipal waste of Canada (see the UN Statistics site for more information on cross-country comparisons). According to Leonard, an important element in waste production is perception. See this extract from The Story of Stuff:
There's an exercise I often do with kids. I take an empty soda can and I set it on a desk. "Can someone tell me what this is?" I ask. "It's a can!" they always yell out. Then I hold up a little trash bin. "What about this?" "That's trash," they say. I show them what's inside the bin: an empty soda can. In the bin, it's trash. I take it out and place it next to the first one. "What about now?" "It's a can." The point, of course, is that there's no difference between the can on the desk and the can in the bin. Waste is defined by where something is, not what it is. It's about context, not content.(2010, pp.234-5)
Leonard goes on to point out that the can, in another context, is a resource – the metal is re-useable and can be recycled.
The cultural convention that distinguishes waste from resource is considered in the OU's undergraduate module, Introducing the Social Sciences (see the link above for more information). Economist Viv Brown, poses the question: 'What is rubbish?'. He says
'One answer is that it is something that has no value…. It is what nobody wants, so it is worthless….Items have value because people value them…. Similarly, if rubbish has no value, this is because people disvalue it (not because the item is in and of itself worthless). So looking at rubbish … can tell us something about the social processes that are involved in valuing, or in this case, devaluing, an item.' (Vivianne Brown, Rubbish Society: Affluence, Waste and Values, 2009, p.105).
There is another way of looking at our waste. In contemporary consumer culture, it is often noted that our identities are very much bound up with what we consume: what we wear, where we shop, the food we eat and the technologies we have to hand are markers of who we are. But, as any anthropologist will tell you, what we throw away reveals far more about who we are and how we live than the things we buy.
The ethnographic study by Jeff Ferrell (who discusses his research for Empire of Scrounge on Thinking Allowed, 11 April 2012) demonstrates the plausibility of living on society's detritus. Ferrell takes 'dumpster diving' to another level, including reinventing the tradition of the 'rag and bone' man in the electronic era, using e-bay to sell items he has found in waste cans.
The issue of waste, and perhaps more importanty, wastefulness, goes to the heart of global inequalities. As Tristram Stuart notes, 'All the world's nearly one billion hungry people could be lifted out of malnourishment on less than a quarter of the food that is wasted in the US, UK and Europe'.
Moreover, a 'third of the world's entire food supply could be saved by reducing waste – or enough to feed 3 billion people; and this would still leave enough surplus for countries to provide their populations with 130 per cent of their nutritional requirements.'
The statistics of waste – food waste, packaging waste, electronics waste, wasted journeys – are shocking, and have economic, environmental and, perhaps increasingly, personal implications. Are we members not so much of a consumer society, but of a rubbish society? In our overflowing bid to consume and stockpile are we, ourselves, a little bit rubbish?
- Try a free course sample on Understanding the environment